Chilean developer Ace Team is no stranger to bizarre titles. Their debut title, Zeno Clash, cast you as a human who beats the stuffing out of your siblings, all of whom looked like mash-ups of different animals. The look was similarly bizarre, but the first-person melee action made it worthwhile. Its latest title, Rock of Ages, is similarly off-kilter in both story and gameplay execution. While both PC and XBLA players have been enjoying the title for some time, PSN players were only recently invited to the madness.
In Rock of Ages, you take on the role of Sisyphus, the Greek king who, as the legend goes, is forced to roll a large boulder up a hill in Hades for eternity and watch it plummet to the bottom as it nears the top. The cycle goes on endlessly until one day, he gets an idea. If he were to roll the boulder high enough and then let it gain enough momentum, he can have the boulder smash the gates of Hades, freeing him from the punishment. With the plan set, he escapes Hades and takes on other famous historical figures.
The humor really comes from the cut scenes. As you go through the ages, each new historical figure you meet comes with funny introductions. Leonidas, for example, does the infamous line from the movie "300" while Vlad Tepes has an intro eerily similar to that of the original Castlevania. You'll see these pop up, and while a few of the jokes are expected, the delivery is still funny thanks to the Monty Python-type graphics and animation. Picturesque figures with barely any animation whatsoever, the crude look only adds to the humor.
The campaign has you always involved in a versus match against many famous historical figures. Both you and your opponent are in your respective castles, and the winner is the first one who can break down the castle gate and squash the enemy. Along the way, you'll have to collect keys to unlock further levels, and you'll go up against unusual bosses, including a flying cherub head and a moving statue of David.
You'll go through two different states in each campaign match. The first is something similar to tower defense, as you spend your gold placing towers and objects that can be used to either break down the enemy boulder or slow its progress. There are conventional items like towers and trebuchets, but there are also stranger options, such as giant fans and elephants. While you can view the whole track, you can only place your items in certain areas. Also, if your opponent's boulder is moving, you can manually shoot it from this view. All of this is done while your own boulder is being constructed, and once you leave this view, you can't return until your boulder is destroyed or has finished its run.
The second state goes in the opposite direction, as it trades defense for offense. Taking control of the rock, your basic goal is to make it to the enemy castle in one piece and smash the door until it breaks. Smashing into the door instantly destroys your boulder, but the amount of damage you inflict on the door is determined by lots of other factors. Aside from momentum, the size of your boulder also determines the amount of damage you can deal, and size is affected by the amount of energy your boulder has by the time it reaches the gate. Just about everything you use on defense is available to your enemy, so you can expect him/her to use explosive barrels or catapults to make your boulder smaller. Long falls and destroying structures also contributes to your health reduction, though falling down pits only eats up your time and nothing else.
Boulder rolling isn't all about avoidance. Though you lose health for breaking down towers, destruction is the only way to earn gold, and you'll quickly try to develop a balance between keeping your boulder powerful while amassing enough funds to buy more defensive tools. That same gold can be used on offense to buy power-ups for your rock, including setting it on fire to inflict more damage, having it spread oil to reduce the enemy's ability to place objects, and giving it armor so it can withstand more hits without losing energy. These power-ups can only be used once per round, giving you another thing to think about to maximize your destructive power.
It is in the offense where Rock of Ages seems the most fun. With the exception of the castle gate, most structures take only one or two good hits to knock down, so each run elicits a demolition derby of destructive enjoyment. The physics system is implemented well enough that you worry about how fast you're going instead of just flooring it. The offensive portion is enjoyable enough thanks to its simplicity, but combined with the implicit strategy required, and the title ends up having some unexpected depth.
There are a few issues that might dampen the enthusiasm of some players. The game is somewhat predictable. Unless you or your opponent lose significant amounts of energy per run, it only takes three tries to knock down the gate and squash the enemy. Being on the defense is the least amount of fun since it's difficult to see how your structures and animals are faring against the enemy's boulder. It often seems like you have to rely on your opponent's mistakes to gain an advantage, and it feels like matches are based more on speed and luck rather than actual strategy. The result is a game that is enjoyable in small doses rather than marathon sessions, a trait that is beneficial since the campaign clocks in at an average of four hours.
Aside from the main campaign, the game features other modes. Time Trials has you going through all of the levels as quickly as possible, but with a few changes. The regular obstacles are there, but the enemy's extra towers and battle animals are absent. You also don't have to break down the castle gate to lock in your time; simply reaching the castle will suffice. SkeeBoulder takes those same courses but adds targets to hit and changes the castle into a giant skeeball ramp, complete with point multiplier circles. Your final score consists of your score from those multipliers and points gained from hitting various objects after three tries. The PSN iteration of the game comes with an exclusive Obstacle Course mode, which takes the basics of Time Trial mode but turns it into a race where the winner is determined in a best-of-three match. The only difference, beyond of the fact that there's an opponent on the same track, is the presence of power-ups that can give your rock better armor or briefly give it wings. The modes are fun for a few minutes, but don't expect to play them for very long since they aren't as engaging as the campaign.
With the exception of Time Trials, the three other modes are multiplayer compatible, both offline and online. Since the campaign mode is already set up as a versus match, multiplayer doesn't feel much different, but the inclusion of offline split-screen is a nice thought. Performance is quite good with no hiccups or stalls, so it's a shame that the online multiplayer is broken. Whether it's ranked or unranked matches, the game has a problem finding anyone, let alone connecting to someone online. As of this writing, the patch is still in certification. Until then, expect an offline multiplayer game only.
The graphics are both beautiful and bizarre. The rock and the structures take on some of the familiar traits of Unreal Engine 3, including some nice texture work. All of those objects break apart nicely. Those are about the only realistic things you'll see in the game, as the rest of the graphics takes on some very curious traits. The terrain comes in more of a checkerboard pattern while the skybox is stylized with painted skies that match the art style of the era. Other objects, like trees and directional signs, are intentionally flat, and just about every person on the field is designed like they are in the cut scenes. Most of them shake around to mimic movement while the main characters wildly flail their limbs before getting crushed. The mix of styles certainly looks unique and pleasant.
The sound perfectly matches the playful nature of the graphics. The music is more whimsical than anxious or foreboding, and the only time it ever elicits tension is when a base is one hit away from losing its gate. The score is a mix of classical pieces and original ones, and the only disappointment is the anticlimactic way the score simply ends once the enemy is defeated. The voices are minimal but well done. The few spoken lines are like imitations, but they sound fine. The effects go for a mix of the serious and the absurd, with the low rumbles of the rolling boulder and crashing of stone towers complementing the splat of the final enemy.
At its core, Rock of Ages is a nice little twist on the basic strategy genre. The combination of tower defense and Marble Madness-style offense works well in small doses. It may be a bit predictable, and the online multiplayer is currently nonexistent, but the work is both funny and original and local multiplayer is enjoyable. For gamers looking for something slightly off the wall, Rock of Ages fits the bill nicely.
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